Ibm's Stealth ComputerIra Sager
Aptiva S Series
When IBM decided to give its plain-looking Aptiva a jazzy new look, one of the first things the computer giant did was dispatch teams of researchers to take pictures of PCs. That's right, actual photographs, from 2,000 homes around the world. IBM collected photos of PCs perched on tiny desktops near the kids' toys in the family room, crammed into bedroom corners next to piles of laundry, even buried in the basement by the boiler.
What did Big Blue learn from all those Kodak moments? Space is at a premium. The desk at home is much smaller than the one at the office, especially from front to back. So while some PC makers are softening the look of their machines with rounder edges and eye-pleasing colors, the consumer is still staring at a space-eating monster that has more in common with its big putty-colored cousin at work than cool, fun-loving gadgets in the home. The typical home PC, with cables in the back and room needed in the front for the keyboard, mouse, speakers, joystick, and possibly a microphone, is at best a tight fit. Throw in a printer, CD-ROMs for children and adults, and a few manuals, and it's chaos.
IBM wanted to bring some order to all of this. The goal for designers was to create a premium line of multimedia PCs and establish Big Blue as a cutting-edge PC maker. Among consumers, IBM was seen as your father's computer company. Big Blue rarely made the shopping list for most home-PC buyers. So James A. Firestone, general manager of IBM's new consumer unit, set out to produce an attractive, sleek new design for IBM's home PCs. "You need to create personality, and design is a key component of that," he says. "It creates an emotional attachment for consumers."
The IBM Aptiva S Series--code-named Stealth--does have personality. It's the only "split system" on the market: To save space, IBM designers put the CD-ROM, diskette drive, and power switch in a slim console that sits on the desk. The rest of the charcoal-colored PC--the hard disk, expansion slots, and the motherboard--are in a cabinet that can be stashed under the desk. Want to load your favorite game? Push on the center of the console, and up pop the CD-ROM and diskette. No more moving the keyboard to let the CD-ROM slip out or sticking your head under the desk to fish for the diskette. And when the console is closed, the keyboard rests on top, under the monitor, which has built-in speakers. "This was an adventurous solution for a mass-market product," says Katherine McCoy of McCoy & McCoy Associates in Buena Vista, Colo. "It was risky and made an engaging product statement."
Consumers are paying attention. In 1996, IBM sold 515,000 Aptivas in the U.S., according to market researcher International Data Corp. Now, IBM is making a comeback in the consumer business. Ranked No.3 in the U.S., IBM has 5.7% of the market, up from a 3.2% share in 1995. In IBM's case, you might say a picture is worth a few points of market share.